Tag Archives: grampa

Kid Pics – The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland VHS (1987)

Welcome to 2017! 2017? Yes, 2017! The four-year anniversary of this stupid blog is right around the corner! Four years! I can’t believe it!

What say we start 2017 off with something, well, something a little out there, eh? Found just a week or two before Christmas, today’s subject cost a whopping 60 cents at a thrift shop, and for sheer “say what?” value, it was worth every penny.

Behold! The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, on VHS! (It’s below and to your right, obviously; eagle eyes will notice I’m experimenting a bit, but just a bit, with formats this time around. This is a little out-of-the-norm for this blog, and while I can’t promise it’ll continue in the future, right now I feel like a big-time legit newspaper guy or something.)

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When I sauntered into this particular thrift shop, it quickly became evident that someone had dropped off their entire inventory of budget cartoon tapes. Now, I’ve got quite a few of these in my collection already, though I’m by no means on a regular hunt for more specimens. I’m interested in releases of the Fleischer Superman cartoons, and Popeye, but beyond those two, I come across cheapo cartoon releases far, far too often to go all nanners over ’em every single time. Thus, most of the tapes out for sale that night were passed over by yours truly.

And, Alice in Wonderland is even less likely to trip my trigger, because, uh, it’s Alice in Wonderland. We never owned a copy, but growing up I was vaguely familiar with the Disney film, and I of course know the basics of the famous Lewis Carroll story. But I mean, this sort of thing just isn’t really my scene, man.

And in the case of this particular VHS, even the cover art is too competent to raise my eyebrows. Lemme explain: part of the fun with cheap cartoon videos from the 1980s is the oftentimes wildly-amateurish cover art. There are quite a few renditions of Popeye and Superman out there that are too pitiful to not love. Heck, overtly terrible artwork can and sometimes is reason enough for me to drop some coin. But here, the artwork is entirely serviceable. Just look at it up there! It’s competently drawn and colored, and it projects a nice, Easter-ish vibe. No one will ever mistake it for a release of Disney’s version of the story, but for what it is, the artist did a good job.

So, just why did this tape end up coming home with me that fateful night? The answer is found on the back cover…

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No, it wasn’t the featured line-up listing. Sure, you’ve got the “marquee” feature, along with what (I guess) I initially presumed was just another old, subsequently-public-domain-lapsed iteration of Carroll’s heroine, plus a couple of other seemingly-appropriate “wonder-ish” cartoons. It all “fits,” but none of those were why I grabbed this VHS, either.

Nope, the real reason I avidly purchased this tape has to do with the logo you’re seeing to the left: it was a Kid Pics release! What makes Kid Pics so special, you ask? Why, Kid Pics was part of the Amvest Video empire, that’s what! Though the back cover makes no mention of it, Kid Pics was indeed a division or subsidiary or connected-in-some-way-somehow to Amvest, and that’s what made this a must-buy for me. You don’t (or at least I don’t) come across these things in-person very often, and at only 60 cents, hey, I pretty much had to have at it!

Amvest has had no small presence on this blog, especially in regards to this their Al Lewis-hosted Grampa Present video series, which culminated in the ultimate recap this past Halloween. Indeed, I’ve become more and more enamored with the company, to the point where anything I come across by them whilst out and about is more than likely entering my collection. While still decidedly a budget outfit, many of their tapes had a quirky charm to them, and there are more than a few interesting stories regarding the company out there in internet-land, for those inclined to look. While I don’t go after every single Amvest release with the same fervor that I do their Grampa series, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give the nod to Amvest whenever possible.

So anyway, there I was, an ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male, carrying a cheap Alice in Wonderland VHS tape around a thrift store, and far more excited about it than any ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male should have been. Was I a cause for concern to fellow patrons of the establishment? Maybe, maybe not. If I was though, what they didn’t realize was that I had found a rare, or at least wildly-obscure item, and more-importantly, fodder for my silly blog. Though truth be told, it wasn’t until after I checked out the tape and ruminated on it for a bit that I myself realized I could get a post out of this, either.

(Found at the same time as this was a Kid Pics tape featuring public domain Looney Tunes shorts, and months ago I had picked a Superman cartoon comp by them as well. For all I know, I unknowingly have more releases buried in my collection. Any any rate, my big hope with these three tapes was that The Happy Hamster, a bizarre host for some, but not all, Kids Pics releases would show up. Alas, it was not to be. Perhaps it was for the best though, since the sensory overload of The Happy Hamster hosting this tape would have, in all likelihood, caused my face to explode.)

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And that brings us to Alice in Wonderland proper.

Before I actually played the thing, I figured this was just another release of an old cartoon that had been floating around the public domain for centuries decades, an Ub Iwerks or something. That’s not what I got, though. Nope, what I found instead, while not really “disturbing,” was still more than a bit odd, and just a little trippy: a 9-minute, black & white short that combined live-action and stop-motion animation to form a fast, condensed version of the famous story.

Upon my initial perusal, I pretty much just zipped through the tape to see what exactly I had. After discovering that this Alice in Wonderland was what it was, I went looking for it online; I wanted to see what year it was released, who was in it, and so on and so forth. My first thought was that it was an early television production, and when my Google searches and whatnot didn’t turn up the answers I was looking for, I quickly found my interest in the whole matter deepening ever more so, as it is wont to do.

Had I been paying closer attention the first time around, I’d have found my answer easily enough: The title-card’s mention of “Lou Bunin” tells all. Turns out, this is an extremely edited version of the 1949 French film of the same name! The original is 80+ minutes long, and in color, so given the nature of the print found on this tape, not to mention the Castle Films cards that were also included at the open and closing of the feature, it seems to me that this was a VHS re-release of something that was produced for the home market in the decades prior; originally a Sound Super 8 reel or something like that. I’ll go ahead and assume this condensed version has lapsed into the public domain in the US, though apparently the 1949 original has not. Either way, interesting stuff!

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At only about 9 minutes, needless to say there wasn’t much time for exposition. So here, things kind of just “happen.” Now granted, Alice in Wonderland didn’t exactly feature the most lucid story in the first place; that was sort of the point of the whole thing, right? But even so, the quick cuts and fairly choppy nature of the proceedings here, it’s a pretty disconcerting. That may sound fitting for an adaption of Alice in Wonderland, but this turned out to be more of an honest-to-goodness sensory assault than it had any right to be.

The plot, such as it is, starts out with Alice following the famous White Rabbit to Wonderland; that’s seriously how this edit of the film starts. No questioning as to why a rabbit is wearing a coat and walking upright – “Seems legit,” as the hip kids say. Following the rabbit to his lair and drinking a potion to make herself small enough to follow him through the tiny entrance to Wonderland? Sure, why not! Alice in Wonderland was kind of an acid trip of a tale in the first place, and as for the 1949 adaption, since I haven’t seen the full version, I don’t know if there was any initial reluctance on Alice’s part or not, but she seems to go with the flow without hesitation here. Anthropomorphic rabbits? Drinking random potions that have appeared out of nowhere? None of that is cause for concern to Alice, I guess!

What follows is Alice being accused to stealing the Queen’s tarts, and being put on trial. The possibility of having her head chopped off, as the Queen readily insists time and time again? Alice seems only mildly apprehensive of the wacky-jack situation and possibly bad resolution – maybe she’s cognizant of the fact she’s trippin’ perhaps? This is weird stuff, and like I said, things just sort of randomly happen; I’d imagine that kids would have needed some prior knowledge of the story to make any sense (relatively speaking) of this particular iteration. And just like it began, it sort of just concludes; just as the trial is about to rule against her keeping her noggin, Alice suddenly finds herself safely back in “real time,” unsure if it was all a dream but with a, as the narrator states, “wonderful story to tell” nevertheless. I’d hardly say nearly being decapitated over tarts is a “wonderful story,” but I suppose it’s pointless to question any of this.

The special effects and stop-motion are technically pretty impressive for the time; they’re well-done and accurately present the dreamlike world of Wonderland. The scene of Alice shrinking near the start is pretty neat for 1949, and the animation of the Wonderland inhabits is acceptable, though the jerky nature of them, coupled with the black & white picture and already-weird nature of the source material, plus the chopped up quality of this print, it all ends up being a little creepy, honestly.

Look, I find this short impossible to satisfactorily describe. The Internet Archive has a copy (though interestingly, it lacks the title card and first several seconds that are present on this tape), and it’s notated as public domain, so here you go.

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When I first found this tape and gave the contents listed on the back a fleeting-at-best glance, I saw what was on it, but I didn’t really comprehend what the included cartoons were, if that makes any sense. Not beyond the cover art at least, I mean. Look, this was a Kids Pics release; it was coming home with me no matter what. I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t pay all that much attention to the tape I was far too excited to find. If that sounds like an oxymoron of sorts, rest assured it happens a bit more often than I’d care to admit. Buy first, think later!

(In all seriousness, whenever I’m out thrifting, I generally do pay some attention to whatever I’ll be bringing up to the sales counter. Be it an electronic, tape, or what have you, I like to have as few negative surprises as possible when I get home. But in this case, and in instances like it, the content of the tape is basically secondary to the rarity of it. Is the tape moldy? Does it look like it will play? That’s all I really needed to know before the purchase. And in the end, it was only 60 cents.)

Anyway, when the sale was done and I got home with my loot, it wasn’t until I actually saw it that I realized there was a thematic-element going on here. This wasn’t just a short, budget-priced collection of public domain cartoons; Amvest/Kids Pics/whoever put together four shorts that kinda sorta go together (for the most part; read on, you’ll see), despite not being related in any real capacity.

So, Alice’s Tin Pony. On the surface, it sounds like another vintage trip to Wonderland, not unlike how there were multiple theatrical shorts detailing the land of Oz back in the day. One would and could be forgiven for making that Wonderland connection upon first glance, given the title (especially if they weren’t familiar with the various renditions of Alice in Wonderland, as I was/am). Maybe that’s the main reason it was included in the first place, I don’t know.

But, that’s not what this is. Rather, it’s a part of an old, old series of silent Disney shorts from the 1920s that have all lapsed into the public domain. Look up above if you don’t believe me. Alice, Disney. See?!

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Besides the whole “her name is Alice too!” thing, this cartoon makes a fitting pairing with the bizarre Alice in Wonderland edit that precedes it for one very good reason: it’s a combination of live and action and animation.

The gimmick for these “Alice Comedies” was that the titular character was a real human kid, superimposed (?) over the cartoon world in which she lives and takes part in. Truth be told, it’s an effect that works far better than I ever would have expected it to prior. This short is from 1925, and while this isn’t news that will surprise anyone familiar with the series, I found it technologically impressive.

Alice’s partner in these shorts was an animated cat named Julius. There they are up above, and if you think Julius bears more than a passing resemblance to Felix the Cat, that’s because he, uh, doesbig time. Not only does Julius appear to be a dead-ringer for Felix, but he acts pretty much the same, too. Dude can even detach his tail and do things with it. In fact, this short is pretty surreal overall, not unlike a typical Felix the Cat cartoon – which of course makes it an even better pairing with Alice in Wonderland.

In this Alice installment, she and Julius run a railroad line, and that day, it’s carrying a payroll shipment of some sort. Felix’s Julius’ surrealistic powers and a sentient train help stop a bandit and his gang from stealing said payroll.

Listen, this thing is impossibly weird, it’s public domain, and it’s only a bit over seven minutes long, so just watch it for yourself here.

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Now is as good a time as any to mention that this tape would not stay tracked. My screenshots don’t look so bad, but man, while in action I had to keep screwing around with the tracking controls. By the end, even the patience of your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter was being tried, and believe me, I’m no stranger to wonky trackin.’ This was a pretty cheap tape, recorded in EP, and that coupled with one of my lower-end VCRs, well, the results are never gonna be Criterion-quality when I go that route.

The second-half of the tape opens with this, 1936’s Somewhere in Dreamland. Wonderland, Dreamland, the (loose) theme continues! According to Wikipedia, the first few minutes of this cartoon are sometimes cut, though the complete (?) version is found here. Note the black bar obscuring the original copyright info above; was that even necessary? Near as I can tell, this one has been in the public domain for decades. Then again, the bar doesn’t appear then-recently implemented, and there’s a NTA title for the ending card, so maybe it was first used when this one hit television? That’s my best guess, anyway.

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Somewhere in Dreamland is very much a depression-era cartoon. In it, two poor kids haul a wagon around collecting firewood for their home. They can’t afford sweets or any of the other things kids ostensibly desire. A sad moment early on has their mother feeding them stale bread, and crying when one of them says they’re still hungry. Given the then-current situation in pre-WWII US, it’s pretty powerful imagery, especially for a kids cartoon. One can’t help but feel that the early scenes of the short really hit home for more than a few viewers at the time.

No, chief, none of that’s the Dreamland of the title; it’s not an ironically-named cartoon! Rather, Dreamland is where the two kids visit when they go to sleep that night. (I guess they dream in tandem?) Dreamland is filled with all the things they don’t have access to in real life: Nice clothes, sweets, toys, general pleasantness. And it’s all accompanied by a dreamy (“you don’t say?!”) song playing throughout, which is probably exactly how you’re envisioning it to be, if you have any familiarity with cartoons from this era.

There’s a suitably happy resolution to the cartoon that, despite being obligatory, I can’t help but feel was a little disheartening to the real children of the depression that were originally watching this. But then, I’m probably reading too much into this.

Being a Max Fleischer work, there’s also some incredible 3D-rotating backgrounds on display, too. Being a Popeye veteran, I’m well-accustomed to these, but nevertheless, I’m always wowed by them. Go ahead and watch this cartoon for yourself here.

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The tape finishes with Toonerville Picnic, the only cartoon that doesn’t really fit in with the loose dreamy, surrealistic theme of the tape. I mean, there’s wacky, unrealistic situations here, but really no more so than any other cartoon of the time – or now, for that matter. Indeed, Brentwood Video (who had some kind of partnership with Amvest, late in the life of the latter) released a VHS in the 1990s that was pretty much the exact thing content-wise as what we’re looking at today – except Toonerville Picnic, which was dropped from the line-up. At least that’s how I understand it, not personally owning that Brentwood release myself.

From 1936 and based on a long-running comic strip, this was one of Van Beuren Studios’ all-color Rainbow Parade series entries. Actually, it was not only the final Rainbow Parade entry, but from how I understand it, also the final cartoon Van Beuren put out, period. Maybe their final thing ever, for all I know.

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This is my least-favorite short of the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really ga ga over any of these, but as I said, I like the weird, out-there vibes coming from the cassette. Toonerville Picnic kinda stops all that dead. What, Amvest/Kids Pics couldn’t find one more trippy public domain cartoon to finish off their blockbuster VHS release? Bah! Maybe I’d like it more if I had some actual experience with the comic strip it’s based on, but I don’t so I don’t.

Not that it’s really a bad cartoon, mind you. Just not my favorite. In it, Mr. Bang, who has a temper to match his last name (i.e., he’s in a constant bad mood) is ordered to get some rest, so he heads to the beach. What he gets is an annoying dog, an uncooperative chair, and a homicidal octopus. You’ll have that, after all.

Look, I’m tired of talking about this tape. Just watch this one for yourself here. (Link has a different opening card from what my copy features, but whatever.)


My conclusions?

This is a neat tape. It’s a little out there, but it’s neat. On the surface, it looks like just another run-of-the-mill budget cartoon tape. Playing it though, that’s where things get interesting. Instead of being yet another presentation of the “usual suspects” of PD animation, this is instead an interesting collection, featuring four fairly obscure shorts. In fact, all four were new to me.

‘Course, Alice in Wonderland is the centerpiece, and boy, is it a trip. The extreme editing it suffered gives the short a real, I don’t know, stream-of-consciousness feeling, I guess you could say. Whether the complete 1949 original is like that, I do not know. But as to what’s seen here, it’s truly a wild, wacky trip back to budget VHS past, and it totally sets the tone for the rest of the video. Sure, the shorts get progressively less strange as they go along, but all in all, this isn’t a bad 30 minutes or so for lovers of “huh?!” cinema. I didn’t realize how fortuitous the tape would be when I discovered it at that thrift store several weeks back, but boy, good find.

And it was only 60 cents!

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1922’s “Nosferatu” (1988)

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You want October-appropriate? You got it!

Why’s that? Because the quest continues! The quest for what, you ask? More Grampa Presents tapes, that’s what! See that image above? That’s the mark of greatness. You can’t deny it, because it is. Blood-drippin’ font, Al Lewis kinda sorta winking at you, greatness.

Actually, the quest for these tapes never stopped. With last year’s big Halloween day post, I first spotlighted the Amvest Video “Grampa Presents” VHS series, in which Al Lewis (who was Grandpa Munster in everything but official name) hosted public domain horror films from a cheap, green-screened set and yelled at an unseen (and unheard) Igor.

Despite that tape having the notable malady of ending before the movie was actually finished, I was entranced, and by January 2016, I had not only added a number of titles in the series to my collection, but also gained quite a bit of knowledge on the company, the series as a whole, etc. This was all presented on the blog via an intensely detailed review of The Corpse Vanishes from the line, a tape that has become one of the favorites of my collection (and that post is one of my favorites on this site, too).

I’d like that Corpse Vanishes post to be the ultimate word on the subject, but that doesn’t mean my purchasing of these tapes or first-hand ‘research’ has stopped since. Oh no, I kept adding to the collection, kept learning about the various quirks of the line. Indeed, as far as pre-recorded VHS releases go, Grampa has become the main area of interest for me.

That said, while I don’t want to reiterate all of the points I made in that last article, I feel I need to give a quick summation of just why I’m so fascinated by this whole thing. In short: the series had limited distribution, and has subsequently become relatively obscure. Despite a list of supposed releases, no one is quite sure just how many tapes actually made it out with Grampa adorning them in some fashion. Add to all that a cheap, budget tape charm and the aspect of horror hosting at the center of it all, and, well, is it any wonder I want as many of these as possible?

And that brings us to this tape. In the realm of budget VHS (and Halloween!), the charmingly cheap vibes emanating forth are nearly overpowering. I mean, you’ve got Al “Grampa” Lewis, presiding over one of the greatest horror films of all-time, the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu! The German expressionist (unauthorized) adaption of Dracula! How cool is that?!

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Now, this tape was not one of the “does it actually exist or not?” entries; its existence has been confirmed for quite some time, with a pic of the box floating around online to match. Still, the very thought of Grampa hosting one of my all-time favorite films, and a bonafide classic to boot, easily made it one of my personal chasers. It took awhile for it to show up online, but eventually it did, and duly became mine. It seems like this Nosferatu is one of the harder entries to come by, but then, even the more “common” titles don’t appear all that often. And, regardless of any perceived rarity on my part, these Grampa tapes seem to run on average $20-$30 no matter what the featured movie is. Sometimes even less.

Look, I love these releases, warts and all, but aside from being compared to other old VHS tapes, they’re not really worth all that much. Is that because the line is so obscure? Because the tapes are so cheap in pretty much every facet? Or is it because I’m the only one that actually cares about all this? I don’t know the answers to these burning questions, but I do know that this Nosferatu VHS is mine and you can’t have it. So there!

You can’t say the cover isn’t eye-catching, though in a good way or a bad way is solely up to the individual gawking at it. The watercolor-ish rendition of one of the most iconic images from the film, complete with mood-setting-yet-totally-superfluous lightning added, is a good example of the art used for many (but not all!) of these tapes. As I’ve said before, they often had a decidedly “homemade” look to them, some ultimately faring better than others. Many will disagree, but I personally feel that the hand drawn covers only add to the charm of the line. It just screams “budget tape,” which, needless to say, is like my own personal Siren. (Minus the resulting sailor death – hopefully.)

But, as I’ve also pointed out before, these covers are absolutely made by the “Grampa Presents” banner along the top. How could a horror fan not want to add that to their collection? They’re always so unabashedly cool, and they totally add a unique aspect to these releases. Why pick up that cheapo copy of Nosferatu when you can have this one with Al Lewis adorning it? It’s a decision that practically makes itself!

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Like the cover art, the synopsis’ found on the backs of these varied from release to release. Nosferatu got one of the more-detailed ones, though it’s kinda odd. Nosferatu was, as previously mentioned, an unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As such, the filmmakers originally changed names and details in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit from Stoker’s estate (a ploy that failed spectacularly; more on that in a bit). Later American prints later changed these aspects back to fit more with the Dracula we know and love. Perhaps surprisingly, the summary on the back cover uses the original naming system in its description (except for “Bremen,” which should be “Wisborg” in this instance), even though the actual print is a later Dracula-ized U.S. version that frequently made (and makes) the public domain rounds. So what point of reference was Amvest actually working from here?

And the synopsis as a whole, it’s strangely ‘paced,’ for lack of a better term. Not only does it completely ignore the Dracula-aspects of the movie, but it also really focuses on only half the story. There’s too much emphasis on Hutter/Harker being stuck in the castle, and not enough on what the movie is really about. That said, even if I hadn’t known better, it still sounds like a pretty good movie. But, the bottom line is, it’s not a very balanced summary.

‘Course, like the banner on the front covers, the saving grace on the back covers was always the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature found at the bottom. They were like Al Lewis’ own stamp of approval, his personal guarantee of a good time. He always gave a short (sometimes very short) endorsement, and the piece de resistance, a star rating system – but composed entirely of bats. That’s fantastic. No joke, through whatever faults these tapes may exhibit, they have charm to spare.

Though, only three bats? C’mon Gramps, if Nosferatu doesn’t deserve a whole four bats (or five, if that’s what his scale went up to), what does? At least he correctly concludes that it’s a “scary silent classic,” which it totally is.

(While I have my doubts that Lewis really wrote these summaries himself, I’m operating under the assumption that he did, if for no other reason than the mental image of Grandpa Munster slaving over his synopsis and score for a budget videotape amuses me.)

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NosTeratu. From the same award-winning quality control that let a tape recorded in the wrong speed make it out the door. And yet, I can’t help but love the extreme budget tape vibes projected forth by said typo. Charm baby, charm.

Amount of tape used to record this entry in the series: approximately a foot. Obviously, this is an EP-recorded tape. (However, even though it’s not an issue this time around, there is an inherent danger in jumping to such a conclusion; allow me to direct you back to my first Grampa tape review.)

Okay, so, we’ve seen the front and back covers, and the tape itself. Now it’s time for the really good stuff: Al “Grampa” Lewis not only hosting a horror movie, but a legitimately great horror movie! Behold…

What? Oh, you’re confused by the fact that you’re not seeing any actual screenshots of Grampa in action? There’s a simple reason for that: Grampa is MIA on this tape.

Yes, despite all the pomp and circumstance found on the front and back of the slipcase, inexplicably, the Grampa host segments are not included on my copy. Looks like Amvest went the Gene Shalit route this time around! (I’m reasonably sure this is the only review of Nosferatu to include a common link between Gene Shalit and Al Lewis, by the way.)

Okay, sure, the host segments for this line of tapes, they were the exact same for each movie; it’s not like I’m missing out on anything actually new to me here. Still, their absence does take away an aspect of this VHS that would have made it stand as really unique when compared to other similar releases of Nosferatu.

During my “journey” collecting as many tapes in this series as I can, I long ago discovered that certain releases, while appropriately displaying Lewis on the cover, do not actually feature him before and/or after the movie. (But on the flip side, a few releases don’t feature him on the cover at all, yet he is there when “Play” is pressed!) So, I knew that him not showing up to legitimately host this film was a distinct possibility. Just because I was forewarned doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt me deep anyway, though.

Seeing how up-and-down a lot of these Amvest releases were/are, I don’t rule out the possibility that the Al Lewis segments DID show up on some copies of Nosferatu. I’m going to guess (and that’s all this is, a guess on my part) that later issues of these tapes neglected to include the Lewis segments. I have three SP-recorded tapes from the line, and none feature him. And, as far as the EP recorded ones go, this isn’t the only one I have that omits him, either. So, it wouldn’t really surprise me if other issues of the same title did have the Grampa bits.

I guess what I’m getting at is that you just never really know until you actually play one of these.

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But, Grampa or no Grampa, Nosteratu Nosferatu is still Nosferatu. I mean, it doesn’t get much more classic than this! Plus, even with the Al Lewis host segments absent, his mere presence on the cover is enough to make Kino green with envy. Oh sure, they can restore and tint and whatever this film as much as they want, the fact remains that none of their various VHS, DVD or Blu-ray releases of Nosferatu have Grampa Munster featured on the artwork, and thus, Amvest wins.

Or do they? This ain’t exactly a Criterion-quality print of the film. Indeed, it’s borderline unwatchable, and that’s coming from a guy that spends a fair amount of time staring at thousand-year-old EP-recorded VHS tapes.

First, the good news: this is basically the version of the film that introduced me to the movie waaay back in 1997. It was Halloween day, and I was in 5th grade. My grade school always did the whole costume thing, and at lunch we were allowed to go home to change. Now, I was already a young tape-head, and I had discovered our WAOH TV-29 and the variety of classic movies they ran that just-past Summer. Oddly enough though, it wasn’t until their late morning broadcast of Nosferatu on that fateful day that I recorded anything off the station. Already a big horror and sci-fi fan, and a sucker for silents too, I was pretty stoked to check out this new-to-me movie.

So, lunchtime rolled around, my brother and I came home to get our costumes, and I had just enough time to see what I captured earlier that very day. Obviously I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing right then, but it took only a few cursory glances to know this was already ‘my’ movie. I was a fan from the start.

It was an old, worn, Americanized print, one that I’d run into time and time again in the years following, but the thing that, unbeknownst to me initially, really set this one apart was a wonderfully spooky score (relatively spooky, anyway). I can’t think of a better way to describe this, but the “woooooo” sound made upon the opening credits starting, it instantly set the tone, and thus that’s just one of the reasons this is the version of the film I’m most nostalgic for.

So, this Amvest release is essentially the same version I first saw that day back in October 1997. Well, except for the Thunderbird Films superimposition on the title screen (above), far worse print quality, and film duplication that’s markedly below what I myself recorded in EP back in ’97. I still find it wildly endearing, but man, my taped-off-TV copy from nearly 20 years ago (I refuse to believe it’s been that long!) is actually superior to this “real” release! Go figure!

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See, Dracula-styled names. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t. Upon its original release, Nosferatu changed those well-known versions to alternates. Drac became “Count Orlock,” Renfield became “Knock,” Harker became “Hutter,” and so on. Lemme explain a bit…

Nosferatu almost didn’t exist long enough for Grampa to (almost) host it. You know that lawsuit I mentioned earlier, the fear of which being the reason the names were changed in the first place? Yeah, that case was decided in the favor of Stoker’s widow anyway, and she immediately ordered that all prints be destroyed. Yikes! According to legend, she never even watched the film. Luckily, a few copies survived (foreign exports, if I recall correctly), and it’s those sources that gave us the film(s) we have today.

Well, at some point, U.S. prints began removing “Orlock” and so on and instead utilizing the originally-changed names. Nosferatu was obviously already Dracula-ish, but this made it even more Dracula-ish (which makes sense, since it’s, you know, Dracula), and those are the versions most commonly (always?) found making the public domain rounds nowadays.

Are the “re-revised” names found on this release true to the original film? Well, no. Purists will naturally balk at their inclusion here (and at a variety of other aspects, too). Still, because this is how I first saw the movie, I initially had a hard time fully getting into the restored versions that utilized the original ‘fake’ names. Doesn’t bother me now, but I still refer to Max Schreck’s vampire as “Dracula,” not “Orlock,” simply because that’s what it was to me first.

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A face? Nosferatu don’t need no face!

Look, we’re lucky to have any prints of Nosferatu at all, and naturally the ones we did end up with were copied endlessly in the years prior to this video release. Even the various Kino versions, fantastic though they are, aren’t exactly pristine. So, no one should ever think they’re going to get something particularly fantastic-lookin’ from a budget VHS edition. One recorded in EP, at that.

As you can see above, there are shapes and forms on-screen, but actual detail is pretty much loooong gone. Now, most of that is the print itself, but Amvest, for as much as I love ’em, they get some of the blame here, too; their duplication techniques were apparently not the best. I’m not just talking the EP recording speed either, but rather the actual duplication. So many of these tapes look like they were duplicated using the old VCR-to-VCR method; maybe they were, I don’t know. Point is, when you’re using a trashed print of whatever, poor duplication is only going to make the final product look even worse.

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A face? Nosferatu don’t need no face!

The poor condition of this print (and others like it), it’s understandable; I don’t think there was anything even approaching a ‘definitive’ Nosferatu until Kino released their terrific restoration in 1991. And, despite the poor quality here, you do get the gist of things. But man, sharper image quality makes a big difference in a film like this.

On that front, I’ve got to backtrack a bit. I’ve previously stated that with films like this (and the original Night of the Living Dead, while we’re at it), you can clean them up and restore them all you want, the older, worn prints are the ones I find most effective. I don’t mind if a version uses the Dracula names, lacks tinting, is scratchy, whatever – to me, that only enhances the nightmarish quality. It almost feels more otherworldly, like you’re watching something you’re not supposed to. I know I’m in the minority here, and it undoubtedly has to do with how I first saw the movie, but hey, that’s just me.

HOWEVER, I’ve got to rectify that statement somewhat; while I still stand by it, I stand by it only to an extent. This Nosferatu, it just looks bad. It’s blurry, the detail is blasted, and the picture is overly cropped. As such, much of the mood, not only is it NOT enhanced, it’s actually destroyed beyond repair.

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A head? Nosferatu don’t need no head!

There’s that cropping I just mentioned! Nosferatu being cropped isn’t exactly a unique aspect to this release; many versions suffered varying degrees of cropping. Amvest’s Nosferatu though, boy, scenes like the one above (one of my favorites from the film) are not only rendered much less effective, they also look a bit goofy – and Nosferatu is anything but goofy.

Abrupt gear shift; I should probably talk about the actual movie a little, huh? I have a feeling most people stumbling on to my silly little blog have already seen Nosferatu; it’s one of THE top horror films, silent or otherwise. But if, by chance, you haven’t seen Nosferatu, yet are familiar with Dracula (in some form or another), well, you’ll probably already have an idea of how this film plays out. The basics are same: a vampire travels from his faraway castle to civilization, bringing with him a thirst for blood, and thus, death.

There’s some notable differences in Nosferatu, even beyond the aforementioned name changes. The setting is German instead of English, different date, different way of defeating the vampire, etc. The biggest difference, however, is the vampire himself; this ain’t your Lugosi’s Dracula! Instead of the classy Count that Bela portrayed, Max Schreck’s is an ugly, rat-like creature. Tall, gawky, stiff as a board and with claw-like hands, Nosferatu is legitimately terrifying. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, Schreck’s looks as evil as he really is! (Too bad the quality of this print is too rough for me to really show you!)

Look, Nosferatu is public domain. There’s no shortage of copies out there. My recommendation: head on over to Amazon and grab Kino’s fantastic restoration. If you haven’t seen the film, you need to see it. It’s a fantastic piece of German expressionism that, frankly, I’m not sure I can do justice to by merely explaining it.

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Look familiar? Why, that’s our cover art in action! You’ll note the absence of lightning. And why exactly is a vampire walking around in daylight? Nosferatu was originally tinted, with appropriate colors for appropriate times/scenes/etc. Restored versions included new, supposedly-accurate tinting, though that is, of course, not the case with the public domain copies such as this one.

It’s a testament to just how well-made this film is that even without the original tinting, and even in a print as poor as this particular one, some of the images still remain effective. Case in point: above, and below…

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Surely you recognize this scene. It’s one of the most iconic images from the film, which is really saying something, considering there’s plenty of iconic images throughout. Even with the shoddy shape this print is in, it’s tough to ruin it, though the VHS refusing to track properly did the best it could. (No kidding; being old budget tapes, these Amvest videos often have tracking problems, but man, this Nosferatu just got crankier and crankier as it played.)


This is a tape where the whole is probably greater than the sum of its parts.

While on one hand you’ve got a legitimately classic horror film as part of a cool series of tapes from the golden age of home video, you’ve also got a terrible print, problematic tracking, and what was supposed to be one of the most unique things about the whole deal, Grampa’s host segments, those aren’t even included.

And yet, somehow, it still works. Don’t get me wrong, this is far, far from a definitive release of Nosferatu, but as an artifact of 1980s home video, it’s pretty darn cool. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for classic horror films, especially public domain ones that have found their way to the often-murky world of cheapie videotapes.

Or maybe it’s just that Al Lewis box art. After all, that alone probably puts this one above all the other budget releases of the time. Okay, it’s a host-less version of the movie, and with awful picture-quality to boot. Doesn’t change the fact this makes for one neat, Halloweeny-lookin’ video! On the outside, anyway…

At any rate, I couldn’t be happier to have this as part of my collection. Another Grampa tape down, _____ to go!

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1939’s The Human Monster (1988)

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Happy Halloween!

I can’t believe Halloween 2015 is here! The year zipped by like nothing, and this last month in particular has been a whirlwind. I love Halloween, but there’s always a sad feeling when the big day finally arrives; the whole month is a build-up to October 31st, and then Halloween itself comes and goes in a quick 24 hours. And just like that, full attention is then directed to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Halloween just ain’t long enough, man.

Some readers may remember last year when my Halloween-appropriate output during the season was decidedly lacking. Real life and all that jazz. I have rectified that error somewhat this year; last week we saw Gene Shalit’s visage pitch 1941’s The Wolf Man on VHS, and for this Halloween day post, I’m going above and beyond. Gene Shalit and Lon Chaney Jr. are a tough act to follow, but I do believe I have accomplished just that, with this: Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS series, starring none other than Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis! And he’s hosting Bela Lugosi’s The Human Monster! Cool winnins!

There were a bunch of these Grampa Presents videos for Amvest, though the overall distribution was so limited that no one is quite sure just how many were actually released and how many were merely proposed releases. A good number of titles did make it out of the door in some amount, but none of them are easily found nowadays. Indeed, these releases range from highly obscure to impossibly rare. Heck, even non-Grampa-branded Amvest titles are often tough to come by. Some of these tapes are worth more than others, mostly depending on rarity and/or how cool/popular/whatever the movie featured is. But for those so inclined, enough diligent internet searching should turn up at least some fairly affordable prospects. I mean, these are rare, but not that rare. They ain’t the Honus Wagner of VHS tapes, man.

So, when I was able to nab this tape for a price that didn’t cause my arms to flail about in utter dismay, I jumped at the chance. A bit over $20? A little pricey for an ancient budget VHS, but I can live with it. Don’t underestimate just how gratifying it is to finally have one of these tapes in my collection. I’ve been aware of the series for some time now, but the pricing/availability/whatever just never worked out for me. But, I was able to make it happen in time for this Halloween post, and that’s something I really hoped to accomplish.

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Much of my fascination with the Amvest Grampa videos stems from two factors:

1) The apparent limited distribution and uncertainty regarding which titles in this series did and didn’t actually hit store shelves, plus the murky aura that often tends to surround these cheapie, dime store video releases in general. It sort of lends an air of mystery to these tapes, and I find that endlessly intriguing.

2) I’m an Al “Grampa” Lewis fan, period. He was such a cool guy, and he never resented the Grampa character typecasting that stuck with him following The Munsters. On the contrary, he took it and ran with it. Besides these videos, there were the personal appearances, television commercials, his own restaurant, even an Atari 7800 game. So yeah, if he’s going to have his own line of VHS tapes in which he hosts public domain horror movies, I’m all over that.

And just look at that cover art! If that isn’t budget tape greatness, I don’t know what is. Caricatures of Bela Lugosi and Wilfred Walters (not Hugh Williams as the cover implies), drawn in the proud public domain tape tradition (on cardboard so flimsy I’m actually a little surprised the sleeve has survived to the present day as well as it has), with an illustration of Al “Grampa” Lewis overlooking it all. When it comes to the realm of mega-cheap 1980s budget VHS tapes, it just does not get cooler than that.

The artwork used for the tapes in the series ranged from “pretty darn decent” (usually the ones that used real photographs or original movie poster art as their basis) to “hilariously amateurish” (many, but not all, of the entries with hand-drawn original artwork), though I’m thinking the illustration for The Human Monster falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. You wouldn’t have seen CBS/FOX releasing something like this, but for what it is, a budget video featuring a public domain movie, it’s perfectly serviceable, maybe even above-average.

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The back cover, naturally. The description is perfunctory, as is par for the course with tapes of this nature (click on it for a super-sized view and judge fo’ yo’ self).

What takes this aspect of the release from “meh” territory to “greatest achievement of mankind” territory is the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature at the bottom. Apparently, Grampa gives the film two bats and a description of “Horrible Horror,” which probably isn’t the best way to pitch a prospective customer on your video until you realize you’re supposed to think this was Al Lewis himself giving his seal of approval, in which case how good or bad the movie is is almost secondary to the mental picture of Grampa sitting down and critically analyzing it.

I wonder if Amvest actually did solicit Lewis’ opinion and those are his own real words on the back? I can easily see it being a gimmick the marketing department (?) cooked up to add some extra allure to the tape, but I can just as easily see Lewis matter-of-factly stating his opinion. “It’s hohrrable horrah, Hoyman!” That was my attempt at an Al Lewis-style New York accent, though it probably doesn’t work in print as well as I hoped. Just play along here, okay?

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The tape itself, featuring the plainest label and cheapest film reels in the universe, as well as approximately 3 feet of actual video tape used total (make note of this fact; it will come back to haunt me later).

Okay, preliminaries out of the way, we now come to the real reason anyone bought the tape back then or cares about the tape today…

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Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis! Look at him up there. What a badass.

Like I said before, I’m a huge Al Lewis fan, and seeing him doing his Grampa shtick in any format is a pleasure. But, when that shtick entails horror hosting, man, that’s directly up my alley. On that front, these Amvest videos not only feature Lewis hosting a movie, they were also released in 1988, which was smack in the middle of Lewis’ run on TBS as host of Super Scary Saturday, a weekend showcase in which he hosted horror and sci-fi films as his Grampa persona. Back in June, I looked at one such broadcast.

By ’88, home video was a genuine fact of life, and by then it had progressed to the point where it was actually feasible to have budget tapes. Considering Lewis wasn’t shy about lending his Grampa-persona to anyone willing to pony up the bucks, his TBS show was doing well with the kids, and Thriller Video had some success with Elvira hosting movies-for-video, it makes total sense to try to get in on some o’ dat. Heck, this sorta feels like an attempt at aping Thriller’s Elvira videos, only more cut-rate and kid-friendly.

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Those used to his Super Scary Saturday set and its expansive “mad scientist lab” set-up are in for a bit of a shock here. A ‘real’ lab set is nowhere to be found; instead, a green screen featuring a stock shot (I guess) of a lab, with added tinting and neon-squiggle accents (hey, it was 1988), is used for this endeavor. It looks, well, it looks kinda rinky dink, but Amvest was a budget outfit, and after shelling out the Grampa-bucks, you do what you can afford.

The setting may be a low budget affair, but his dialog is classic Grampa. Really, I can’t see how anyone couldn’t love the guy. He opens with a joke about viewers mistaking him for Paul Newman (note: he’s not), and then makes specific mention of personally watching a movie from Amvest’s film library with you, the viewer. Since these tapes were almost certainly aimed at kids (for the most part; there’s a couple more-intense films sprinkled throughout), his patter fits perfectly, and he (obviously) had his act down to a science by that point. So even though it isn’t/wasn’t a high-end setting, it all still works wonderfully, and it’s all to Lewis’ performance.

And really, while my feelings may be slightly skewed because this is Halloween day, this all just feels like the kind of tape parents would put on for kids that were too young to fully partake in Halloween activities but still wanted to give them something ostensibly spooky to stare at. I love it.

By the way, there was an opening sequence to all of this wackiness, but as was the case with so many budget videos, there was no customary blank black screen or copyright notices prior to the start of the show/movie/etc. The program itself started at the very beginning of the tape. Problem with that set-up is that when it comes to tapes of this nature, that’s when tracking and whatnot is still getting situated, and as far as this tape goes, by the time things settle down to a coherent viewing-point, Grampa is already into his pitch. This irritates me.

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Rumor has it that these intros and outros were the exact same for every Amvest Grampa Presents release, with only a voiceover changed to reflect the different films featured. That is, Grampa would ask the unseen Igor what the feature film was for that video, and then look on expectantly as the title was announced via the aforementioned voiceover.

Methinks the quality control at Amvest was a little lax, because for this release, they forgot the voiceover! What this means is you get to watch Grampa listening in anticipation to absolute silence and then excitedly proclaiming “That’s the one!” Even for a budget video company, I can’t believe they let something like that slip through the cracks. It’s unintentionally hilarious until I remember I paid over $20 for this damn tape.

(Amvest’s apparent laxness manifests itself in more dire form later, but we’ll get to that in due time.)

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Being wildly public domain, this isn’t a hard movie to track down in the slightest, but oddly enough, until I got this tape I only ever saw the film under the original British title of Dark Eyes Of London.

As stoked as I am to have this video, I’m the first to admit this flick has never been a favorite of mine. In fact, I find it fairly dull. I first recorded it (under that Dark Eyes Of London title) off of WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 waaay back in, I’m pretty sure, 1997. At the time, I was into any and all old horror and sci-fi films, and being from the 1930s/1940s sweet-spot (which I still have a strong affinity for to this day), Dark Eyes should have instantly found a place in my heart

But, it didn’t. Even this latest viewing did little to change my opinion that it’s a slow-moving, dry, overtly British film. Not that I mean to knock British films, there’s a ton of great ones even from just the same time period as this, but British horror and sci-fi has just never appealed to me the way similar U.S. products in the genre(s) have. It may be anathema to admit this, but even the Hammer films have never really tripped my trigger. And Gorgo? A less fun (and overrated, in my opinion) Godzilla knock-off. In fact, Vincent Price’s Theatre Of Blood has been the only British film in this genre to genuinely, raptly hold my attention.

So, hey, I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m being honest: I find The Human Monster infinitely less fun than Bela’s The Ape Man, Invisible Ghost, or what have you. And, I know I’m probably in the minority there; a lot of people love this movie. That’s fine, I don’t want to stomp around babbling about how bad it is or anything like that, but frankly, it just doesn’t do much for me.

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You know, I realized that as of late this might as well be the “Bela Blog.” Over the past year, he’s popped up here via Superhost’s Dracula broadcast, Son Of Ghoul’s Plan 9 broadcast, my SPN Network post, even that recent Mill Creek movie set review and just last week in the previously-linked Gene Shalit Wolf Man VHS post. Even a few stray times beyond all that, too. Bela definitely has a presence here.

This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, though. I can only write about what I’m sufficiently fired up over, and it was sheer coincidence that Bela Lugosi figured into so much of it. Not that I’m complaining; I’m the first to admit I’m a big fan of his. Bela, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price – if a movie features them, it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, their involvement is enough to garner at least some interest on my part (The Human Monster included). Such is my admiration for them both as actors and as a horror/sci-fi junkie.

In this one, Bela plays one Dr. Orloff, an insurance salesman that kills clients for their policies and then collects the big money. Probably not exactly a foolproof plan, but no one ever said evil guys are always rational. Orloff also masquerades as a fella named Dearborn, who runs a home for the blind, a locale that figures prominently into the plot.

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I think a large part of my lukewarm feelings towards this movie stem from the fact that it just isn’t very “horrific” in a typical-of-the-genre sense. Bela doesn’t create any creatures, there’s nothing supernatural about it (it’s The Human Monster, after all), and again, I find the proceedings verrry dry. I’ll take Bela turnin’ himself into an ape guy any day.

Bela Lugosi’s performance aside (I may not be a fan of the film itself, but he does play his role well), the sole aspect of the movie I find genuinely interesting is Wilfred Walter’s monstrous, blind baddie, Jake, who you’re helpfully seeing above. Jake is a resident of Dearborn’s home for the blind, and does the killing for Dr. Orloff. He certainly does look scary, and to the credit of the filmmakers, there are some terrific shots of him. He doesn’t really save the film for me, but he certainly makes it more bearable.

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Look at that, Amvest felt the need to watermark the movie at one point, as if someone was interested in stealing their silly lil’ flick.

Given that this is a budget video release of a public domain movie, no one should ever expect a pristine film print, and the condition of this The Human Monster certainly lives up (down?) to those expectations. It’s dusty, dirty, scratchy, but yet, thanks to the LP recording speed, relatively sharp and clear. It could have looked so much worse, so that aspect was a pleasant surprise.

A decidedly less-pleasant surprise was in store for me though, and it was this surprise that concluded the tape. According to this thread over at the Our Favorite Horror Hosts forum, there was no set recording-mode that these Grampa Presents tapes would be produced in. Could be EP/SLP, could LP (such as this one), could be SP. I have seen pictures of Grampa tapes with an SP sticker affixed to the back (this one here), so SP and LP tapes are definitely out there, and I assume EP/SLP ones were released as well.

And that brings us to that eyebrow-raising conclusion: it appears that despite the LP-recording speed used for this copy, there was only enough tape for an EP/SLP recording. You know what that means, don’t you? The tape ran out and ended before the actual movie did!

That’s right, no stunning conclusion to The Human Monster, and more distressingly, no Grampa outro. My reaction to this revelation was something akin to “AW C’MON!” though I don’t recall my exact words. I wasn’t real happy, though.

Don’t let that dissuade you from picking up a copy of this video or any other in the series, though (unless I’m going after it too, in which case kindly back off pal). I doubt this is representative of the Grampa Presents tapes in general; my guess is it’s merely what many would term a “defective video.” Like I said earlier, I’m guessing Amvest’s quality control was a bit lax. I don’t mind discovering this, but I do kinda mind spending $20+ to find out.

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And yet, in the overall picture, the incomplete recording doesn’t really bother me that much. I mean, yes, of course I’d prefer the whole thing (duh!), but the rarity of the tape coupled with that perfect slice of late-1980s cheapie VHS essence, that recording snafu is almost overruled by all of that. In fact, it actually kinda adds to that late-1980s cheapie VHS essence! It’s not an ideal situation, obviously, but I try to look at things like this as glass-half-full.

I contacted my friend Jesse (one of the most knowledgeable guys I know and a genuine good egg to boot) to see if he remembered these Grampa Presents tapes from back in the day. He did indeed; if anyone would, Jesse would. He recalled that they were briefly (about a year) sold at Rolling Acres Mall (possibly at Camelot) for under $10. In the years since, he’s come across used copies only once or twice, and given the horrid artwork, he didn’t feel compelled to pick them up. That all fits perfectly with what I know about these tapes (which admittedly isn’t much). Jesse gets around much more than I do, so if he’s only come across copies a handful of times at most, their distribution had to be painfully limited.

Honestly, even though I personally didn’t have any entries in this video series until this one, it still serves as a nostalgia piece for me. It absolutely reminds me of the budget tapes I had growing up, warts and all. Heck, this just feels like something I would have (should have?) found at D&K in the old State Road shopping center. I never did, of course, but I’d like to think I would have snapped it up with a fervor comparable to what I feel going after these nowadays. Maybe even more fervor back then, because this was all so new to me at the time.

I’ve got a lot of tapes. Thousands and thousands, to be frank. When it comes to just the prerecorded stuff, I’ve got so much and have crossed so many personal “wants” off my list over the years that it’s hard to get really, genuinely stoked over a tape. It happens from time to time though, and in the case of not only this tape but all of the Grampa Presents tapes, well, I got the hunger. I don’t care if the intros and outros are essentially the same for each one, I don’t care if the quality is lacking, I don’t even care that this tape doesn’t even play all the way through. The bottom line is it’s Al “Grampa” Lewis, it’s horror hosting, it’s obscure, and it’s just plain cool. I want more, and I’m determined to get more!

And with that, this Halloween post comes to a close. Have a fantastic, fun and safe Halloween, everybody! See y’all after Ghoulardifest 2015!